East Oakland hungry, homeless get 17 tons of free, fresh food from Zakat Foundation of America

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OAKLAND (June 20, 2020) — A swarm of Zakat Foundation of America aid workers and volunteers unloaded and passed out a semi-trailer filled with 35,000 pounds of free, farm-fresh produce. The food went into thousands of waiting hands in the heart of store-shuttered, food-barren, pandemic- and protest-hit East Oakland at the city’s oldest mosque this morning.

“Really, Zakat Foundation doing this is great,” said Hatem Bazian, chair of the Northern California Islamic Council (NCIC), calling East Oakland a “food desert.”

“This distribution of fresh produce in this area is very, very critical, coming on top of COVID-19, coming off of compounded racism, and the gentrification that takes place and makes this area really one of the hardest hit zones.”

The giveaway began at Masjidul Waritheen, 1700 47th Avenue, when the big rig hauling a 53-foot refrigerated trailer filled with the fresh farm pickings pulled up.

“We’re going to be getting it off this truck and then we’ll be giving it out, no questions asked,” said Minara El-Rahman, Zakat Foundation’s digital marketing manager and one of the event’s key organizers.

That effort began around 8:00 a.m. In no time, throngs appeared, in cars and dozens on foot for the masked, socially distanced distribution. In two-and-a-half hours, every produce box was gone.

“Local people in the community came walking up because they don't have cars or couldn’t even afford shopping carts to move the food,” El-Rahman said.

More than 75 volunteers signed up to help the international humanitarian agency, headquartered in Bridgeview, Illinois — near Chicago — hand out the boxes, each filled with 25 pounds of colorful tomatoes, apples, oranges, cucumbers, lettuce, celery, carrots, asparagus, onions, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables.

People did pick-ups for themselves, but also to spread the food aid to the sick, elderly and stranded who couldn’t make it.

“The look on people’s faces when we said they could take more than one box, that they could take three or four, made my knees weak,” said an emotional Amna Mirza, the global charity’s head of marketing & communications.

Mirza conceived of sending fresh-food aid into hurting communities across the country after the Memorial Day police-murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and eruption of anti-racist protests and municipal crackdowns.

She’s now seen her idea leap to life in food distributions from coast to coast — including in North Carolina’s Triangle Region, coronavirus-battered New York, refugee-hub St. Louis, and protest epicenter Minneapolis.

Zakat Foundation has delivered more than 85 tons of fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods cut off from groceries and supplies. Often the organization has doubled up its shipments of nutritional aid with needed PPE supplies for frontline essential workers and health care professionals.

“Big shout out to the Zakat Foundation, Masjid Waritheen, the Northern California Islamic Council and the Lighthouse,” said Sundiata Al Rashid, imam of Oakland’s Lighthouse Mosque. “These brothers right here did an outstanding job,” he said of the aid workers and volunteers who helped with the wholesome food distribution.

Jewish Voice for Peace volunteers showed up in numbers.

“It’s really great to have … the different communities participate to address a pressing need for individuals and communities that have food insecurity,” NCIC’s Bazian said.

East Oakland’s food insecurity came into sharp relief for blocks around the distribution site, with boarded-up stores and X’d-out produce signs in seller windows.

“You have liquor stores, but you have to drive many miles just to find fresh produce,” said Bazian, who is co-editor and founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal, director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at University of California, Berkeley.

Bazian said efforts like the Zakat Foundation’s take religion out of the books and pump it into action in people’s lives.

“This is a tremendous effort, making your Zakat actually make transformation and change,” Bazian said. “This is what Zakat is supposed to do, to impact and provide where our needs are at.”

It’s about “welcoming everyone,” he said, “not only addressing Muslim needs, but anyone that is needing support, needs to be fed, needs to be extended a helping hand. Zakat Foundation is actually coming through.”

He said it breathes life into religion’s teachings.

“This is what comes with the prophetic statement, ‘Feed the people food, spread greetings of peace, and rise up for prayers while people sleep,’ ” Bazian said.

Mirza said the fresh-food intervention reached even further into the hungry East Oakland community than she had anticipated, when Salah Eddin Elbakri, executive director of Support Life Foundation and an NCIC member, contacted a 75-trailer homeless park shelter the city set up.

Mirza said Elbakri arranged to send 2,500 pounds of fruits and vegetables for daily meals Deborah Benando, a site manager, and her staff prepare for the shelter’s residents.

Since March, when the coronavirus lockdowns descended, Zakat Foundation donors and staff have procured, mostly straight from farms, and delivered more than 1 million tons of food to America’s hungry.

“This is what Zakat Foundation stands for. To truly feel connected to each other. To understand the plight of our neighbor. To feel empathy. To understand it’s our humanity that connects us,” Mirza said. “It’s putting our common humanity above what divides us.”